Furniture-Grade Cabinetry Keeps Repeat Business Coming

Stusser Woodworks offers top-quality casework and a wide selection of in-stock veneers to Seattle-area designers and architects.

By Renee Stern

Attention to every detail brings Steve Stusser’s customers back year after year for cabinets, furniture and other woodworking projects. “We try to make sure the back of the cabinet looks as good as the front,” he says.

Stusser Woodworks Inc., based outside Seattle in Woodinville, WA, produces custom pieces for clients in the Northwest and around the world. All the 14-year-old company’s business comes from repeat customers or referrals. “I haven’t had to market a job in years,” Stusser says.

He points to one loyal customer who has returned for more than 12 years, furnishing more than one residence, including a penthouse condo in Monte Carlo, Monaco. The client flew the woodworkers overseas in a private jet to take field measurements. The project took a year to build, was shipped by boat and took two weeks to install.

About 75 percent of his business these days is casework, up from a more even split with furniture in the past. For the last few years, work increasingly has involved complete outfitting of large houses.

Stusser says he uses high-end hardware, custom-sequence veneering and maintains high standards in edgebanding, finishing, and box and drawer construction to produce furniture-grade cabinetry. Although management responsibilities have pushed him off the shop floor, he says he carefully monitors consistency and quality as projects progress.

     
 
This table was a difficult piece to build, says Steve Stusser. It features anigre on the cone-shaped body; the top is mapa burl with walnut inlay and a sen edge; and the base is walnut. The top measures about 24 inches in diameter and the piece is about 30 inches tall.  
     

“Our consistently high-quality products have driven the company,” he says. “That is what customers recognize us for. That is our reputation.”

To get those results, Stusser says he asks employees to incorporate several extra measures. For instance, he insists on hard-gluing all door edges, and he uses 1/16-inch veneer. All boxes are fastened with lamellos, glue and screws, and he uses plywood as often as possible.

Stusser also requires detailed drawings on each job to simplify production and installation. He says he prefers to do shop drawings by hand rather than with a computer. “The computer has a place, but I find it difficult to work with,” he says. “It depends on the application. With custom work, I’m not sure it’s quite as effective.”

All his cabinets and furniture pieces are produced to meet the client’s needs and wishes. Nothing is stock. Ninety percent of his business is residential, turning out furnishings for the entire house, from paneling and tables to casework for kitchen, bath, bedroom and entertainment spaces.

In most cases he works with designers and architects, using their drawings to turn ideas into reality. “Sometimes we have some latitude and we give them options,” he says. “Sometimes they have a starting point and the question is, ‘What can you do to duplicate that?’”

Prices have ranged from $5,000 for a small freestanding piece to up to $30,000 for something larger. Whole-house jobs can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars and typically take at least a year, Stusser says. He divides them into smaller, more manageable projects: a bedroom, say, or an entertainment center. “It’s the only way to get them done,” he says. That way, too, he can weave in other jobs to keep business steady.

Many of his cabinets incorporate curves and odd shapes. For example, one job called for three matching curved pieces for a dining room: a china cabinet with curved glass doors, a buffet with a curved front, and a 6-foot by 14-foot elliptical dining table with a one-piece top made of crotch mahogany.

One of his more unusual jobs was a 7-foot-tall freestanding aquarium of pearwood, figured maple and Honduras mahogany. It integrated a jagged-edge piece of slate inside and out to add an illusion of being able to step inside the tank.

For such jobs, Stusser works with glass artisans, stoneworkers and custom sheet metal shops. He often brings them in to engineer a project together. They return the favor, calling him when they need a woodworker.

“It takes a long time to establish trusting relationships with other shops,” he says. One key to success is providing as much information as possible. “Don’t assume that they think the same way you do,” he advises. “Don’t leave room for interpretation. I have been burned in the back pocket enough times having to redo work to know better now.”

Stusser’s work with other shops includes his role as a vendor — his custom woodworking shop shares space with a veneering shop in which he is a partner, Stusser Mattson Veneer Inc. That company supplies laid-up panels and veneers to other woodworkers in the area. The two companies employ about 20 people and share 8,500 square feet in a light- industrial park, with an off-site warehouse used to store veneers.

The building was purchased in 1994, when the veneer business was started. Stusser Woodworks started in 1987, with Stusser working out of his garage for about a year, making cold calls to get the business into gear. He moved into a 3,000-square-foot facility that he expanded once before buying the current building.

“As soon as the business took off, I had to move out (of the garage),” he says. “Even so, the volume of work we have turned away has been incredible.” Today, Stusser still farms out some projects to other shops, with the clients’ consent.

In the production area of the woodworking shop, Stusser uses a VacuPress vacuum bag veneer press from Vacuum Pressing Systems to create the curvilinear designs the shop specializes in. Other mainstays are an EMA sliding table saw, purchased from Akhurst Machinery; a 30-inch disc sander; a Bütfering Classic widebelt sander from Stiles Machinery; a Hess Mobil edgebanding press, and a Holz-Her Express 1402 edgebander used for flush-trimming and end-cutting. The Bütfering replaced a stroke sander as the shop’s sanding workhorse. The stroke sander is now used for projects such as large tables.

“I don’t have room for more,” he says. “If I did, I would probably double some and get another table saw.”

Stusser pulled his success out of a personal tragedy, using a settlement from his sister’s death in a plane crash to finance his startup.

“My life took a 360-degree turn,” he says. “I was contemplating how to get out on my own when it happened.”

A few years earlier, Stusser had decided to switch careers to woodworking after deciding that he couldn’t make a living as a musician. “I had an intense desire to learn how to be a furnituremaker,” he says. So he went to work for his wife’s brother, who introduced him to the trade, and from there worked at other area shops. The money from the settlement enabled him to purchase some tools and be self-sufficient enough to start on his own.

     
 
This unit has retractable pocket doors and houses a TV. It features anigre, with sketch-face veneer panels bordered by a type of nickel-plated metal.  
     

His music experience has helped him as a business owner, however, He says that managing a woodworking shop is like managing a band. “The band taught me all the skills I use now — I ‘fine-tune’ things so we are all ‘singing in harmony’ and ‘playing in tune,’” he says.

He also uses that experience in his hiring practices. He says that when he is hiring, he considers how a prospective employee will fit into the existing team and how versatile the person is — whether, in musical terms, he can “play more than one instrument.”

Finding good employees also comes down to “pocketbook versus heart,” he adds. “Money is pivotal and motivates all of us, but I need to know where an employee’s passion is. I never want this to be a sweatshop. I want employees to want to be here more than they have to be.”

To create a good workplace environment, Stusser says he tries to give his employees latitude and responsibility. “I learn from them, too,” he says. “I don’t like to be responsible for their success or failure. (The job) is a vehicle for them to make their own success.

“You are only as strong as your weakest link,” he adds.

Having versatile employees makes juggling several big projects through the shop possible. In a crunch, the team turns to the task needing immediate attention. Turnover is low, and employees who leave usually do so to start their own shops.

Having a talented and dedicated workforce helps ease some of the management headaches that come with being a business owner, Stusser says. But there are still challenges, he adds. “There are so many facets you have to stay on top of — managing finances, the crew, the job, the end product, the client. It’s a gorilla.”

Where he really stays “hands-on” is in veneer selection for shop projects. Stusser chooses his veneers individually because, “Good wood sells,” he says. “When you have beautiful material, it’s going to sell itself.”

Stusser Mattson Veneer has a 200,000-square-foot inventory of about 40 different species. Stusser Woodworks has its own stockpile of 30,000 square feet of exotic, high-grade veneers, including yew, koa, burls and more which Stusser buys on spec. “That way, when the right job comes, I’ll have the veneer,” he says. “We have some really spectacular veneer.”

Having the right veneer in-hand sometimes can make a sale, he adds. “If a customer is looking for something and you can show them the log — if you can unveil it, pop open a pallet of veneers and they get emotionally involved and revved up by it — the project will sell itself.”

When it comes to his personal preferences, Stusser says he likes the look of burls and koa, but the client’s wishes always rule. Sassafras is particularly popular these days, he says. Currently, the company is outfitting a house in sassafras and ash. Other top sellers are anigre, madrona burl, cherry and maple.

While he didn’t switch his career to woodworking to become a full-time manager, Stusser says, “At this point, I’m probably stronger at management than in the shop.” Still, he says he would like to pull back growth enough so that he could return to the shop and perhaps develop a product line to complement his custom production.

“It’s every woodworker’s dream to have a furniture line,” he says. He has designed a line of rustic yew furniture that he would like to develop further someday and says he would call it “I Love Yew.”

While that line is still a dream, he already has a name for the follow-up — “I Love Yew Two.”

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